In those days I wanted to be a pilot. I don’t know if my mother knew I wanted to fly. You had to have two years college - I only had one, you had to be twenty-one years old to go to flight school - I was only nineteen. That’s why I hitch-hiked to Canada. Everybody thought I was nuts!
There was a fellow with a lot of flying time that I knew. I used to work in this filling station and he used to come in and buy his gas. His name was James Cunningham. They took him in Canada and made him an Officer. I’d met him when he came back on leave and he told me about how they were taking the Americans in. That was my main source of news.
When I got to the Canadian border at Windsor, I didn’t know for sure what was going to happen so I told them I was just visiting. I never will forget the old boys reply, “The rest of your crowds over at the YMCA.”
I went straight to the YMCA and there they were! I was surprised at the age of some of them, a lot older than I was. Everybody wanted to go kill a German. I had trouble getting into the RCAF. I’d lost so much weight hitch-hiking on the road, run out of money and hadn’t been eating too good.
They were real nice at the recruiting office. I had a little clunky something in my bloodstream that wasn’t working right and the guy let me come back two or three times to let my blood get straightened out. When I first got up there (February 8, 1941) they sent me to become a guard before we took our first training. After Manning Pool in Toronto, I had sent to Fingal to carry a rifle. From there I was sent to Prince Albert,Saskatchewan, then to Dauphin, Manitoba where I graduated on Cessna Cranes.
My mother was from Fort Worth and Tommie Martin’s mother was from Beaumont. They came up there on a slow train all the way to the station at Dauphin, Manitoba. When they arrived it happened to be one of those days just cold as hell. My mother got her shin frozen the day she got off that train. We had to take her to hospital.
On the graduation day, November 21, 1941, two days later, they had the ceremony in the hangar and the guy that pinned the wings on us was a guy named Wilson. When he found out that the ladies were up there, they were the only parents who’d come up except a few of the Canadian people. I asked him if we could have a picture taken with him. He was the C.O. of the station.
Tommie Martin wanted to get into fighters so we separated right then. I never heard from that guy again. He was killed in 1945.
(Photo: Graduation day. Charlie Wilson (left) and Tommie Martin pose with their mothers and the Station C.O., Wing Commander A.H. Wilson.)
They sent me and two other guys, one Canadian and two Americans to Charlottetown, PEI. Then they sent me to Debert, Nova Scotia. They sent the Americans over to Halifax to meet the transfer train. This was the first place it stopped out of Washington.
This one guy wanted to go in the Marine Corps. So we go into the Marine Corps car and talked to those guys. I didn’t want anything to do with talking to those rough guys. Then they sent us into the Navy train car and both of those would have made us officers, Ensign in the Navy Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
My Daddy was in the Army Air Force World War I, and my two Uncles were, so when I get into the Army train car they say, “Well make you a Sergeant Pilot in the Army Air Force.”
I said, “I’ll take it.”
I was sworn into the Army Air Corps on the train. That’s when I got my U.S. rank Sergeant and I was very proud of it. We didn’t have to transfer. It was a very clean deal.
Most Americans that decided to stay with the RCAF were eager to get to combat and I was too, but I was also eager to please my folks and get back in the American deal. When I joined the RCAF America wasn’t in the war yet. I wanted to fight for my country even though I loved Canada.
Four other fellows and I caught a train to Maxwell Field, Alabama. I didn’t want to give up my RCAF uniform; it was nicer than the American one. I wore it there for a week after we arrived. They wondered what the hell we were doing on the base. By this time we had our stripes sewed on – our upside down stripes as they called them. They got a kick out of us.
We got our pictures in the Montgomery paper and everybody was wondering what we were. Finally they sent us over and got us some uniforms. They checked us out on AT-6’s making sure we had some flying time in.
There wasn’t any special bond between Americans up there. They slept in the same barracks, ate at the same tables and went to the same bars and chased around with the same girls. We were part of ‘em and they always treated us well, which I always appreciated. The Canadians, they’re not like the English; they’re more like the Yankee anyway.
The locals in Dauphin were pretty good war people and they were tickled to death about us Americans. They knew we were there to help out and it wasn’t the thing of learning to fly so much as it was we were there to help ‘em fight the war – they appreciated it.
Before I went to England, I was based in Florida about a year. I was the first enlisted man in the history of the air force to check out in the B-17 as a pilot. One time they assigned me a Lieutenant Colonel West Pointer as a co-pilot and I’d thought I’d faint when he walked in there. He got in the right seat. That was good training too ‘cause when I got to England they didn’t know me from anybody and they made me a lead pilot right away which was stupid. They should have let me fly on the wing ‘cause I could fly a real good formation and a lead pilot didn’t have to fly a formation, he’d just sit there and let the other guys fly his wing – but it was kind of an honor to be that.
The RCAF Canucks were more “Let's get with it” than the USAAF Yanks. I still think it was better pilot training after 26,000 hours. (Excerpt from Immigrants of War)